Music & Transcendence

Throughout the transition from Native Son to Go Tell It, I have been struck by the nuance that opens up a hope for redemption and union in Baldwin’s text. Both texts engage with the gritty realities of Black life in America, yet Baldwin seems intent on rediscovering some hope for transcendence. Douglas Field, in his article “PENTECOSTALISM AND ALL THAT JAZZ: TRACING JAMES BALDWIN’S RELIGION,” makes a case for this transformative vision of hope. He claims “Baldwin’s most radical rewriting of Christian—or at least spiritual identity—is to place emphasis on salvation and redemption, not through God, but through a love that is founded on the sharing of pain” (Field). Even in our readings from last week, this impulse toward radical empathy is manifest. One specific example of this could be in the woman on the screen during the movie John watches. Baldwin writes that “all of John’s sympathy was given to this violent and unhappy woman” (36). It seems that art allows John to practice a radical empathy and acceptance that his church experience denies him. This radical and nuanced empathy also provides an insight into why Baldwin incorporates so much Job imagery. Like Job in the bible, Baldwin’s text holds space for nuance, suffering, and redemption in the protest novel tradition. 

After reading the Pentecostalism article, I was also particularly interested in the role music plays. Field claims that “In Baldwin’s writing transcendence or ecstasy frequently occurs outside of religious worship and is most likely to be found in the communion of friends and lovers through playing or listening to music or making love” (Field). It seems, then, that the unity of song provides an access point to transcendence. Again, Baldwin’s text seems to emphasize the important role of art. Given our discussion of Dante in class recently, I couldn’t help but think of Purgatorio. In Purgatory, art is a motive and unitive force. The songs and chants linger over the scene of striving and comfort the souls, stuck in their climb toward transcendence. This music is a shocking transition from the isolation of Dante’s hell, so the music also emphasizes a sort of participatory God, located in communion between souls. It seems perhaps that Baldwin is using music in a similar way. John shares that “their singing caused him to believe in the presence of the Lord” (12). In this way, art holds an especial chance to discover god and one another. 

One thought on “Music & Transcendence”

  1. I love the quote you pulled from the article “PENTECOSTALISM AND ALL THAT JAZZ: TRACING JAMES BALDWIN’S RELIGION” by Field. Despite the focus on religion, salvation, church, and God within the text, I also think Baldwin is trying to make a larger point about salvation as it relates to the Black community. I wonder if the form of the text contributes to this reading. So far, the narrator has switched several times. We hear directly from John, Florence, Gabriel, Elizabeth, and potentially more. By situating narratives next to each other Baldwin invites the reader to draw connections between the stories and form a web of reality from each of them. This activity not only helps the reader to see the humanity in each story, but invites the reader to draw connections between characters, which might be what Field meant by bearing witness to the “sharing of pain.”

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